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Lewis Hamilton going for a hat-trick

Lewis Hamilton will seek to complete a hat-trick of Catalan triumphs and regain the lead in this year's drivers' world championship, as Formula One returns home to this year's first European race at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix.

The defending five-time champion is a single point behind his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the embryonic standings, following their unprecedented four successive season-opening one-twos.

But, like his Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff, he is wary of any suggestion that rivals Ferrari are a fading force and knows that the Italian team, armed with an upgraded power unit being introduced two races sooner than planned, will mount a fierce challenge on the track where they shone in pre-season testing.

"The results may seem to paint a clear picture, but the truth is that they're too flattering," said Wolff, who rejected the notion put forward by Ferrari's four-time champion Sebastian Vettel that his team were now the underdogs.

"The performance has fluctuated in the first four races. Our opponents were blisteringly quick in the winter testing here, so this Spanish Grand Prix will be anything but easy."

The pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya, venue of Sunday's race, seems a long time ago now as Vettel and his new teammate Charles Leclerc struggle to rediscover those dominant displays.

Predictably, most of the teams will arrive in Spain with an array of updates for their cars that may make it more difficult to predict performance, but Ferrari appear to have chosen to adopt a downbeat approach in advance.

"Obviously, Mercedes are very strong at the moment so I am pretty sure they will be very strong as well in Barcelona," said Mattia Binotto, the newly installed team boss facing the challenge of ending Mercedes five years' domination.

"The last four races, on average, we were not quite there," added Vettel. "So we are not the favourites."

Hamilton, almost perversely, has said he wants to see Ferrari lift their performance to ensure a thrilling season of competition for himself and Bottas, as their intra-team rivalry promises to turn into a scrap for the drivers' title.

After a winless year in 2018, Bottas is determined to prove his pace this year. He and Hamilton have two wins each, the Finn adding an extra point to his total by clocking the fastest lap in Australia. - AFP